Thursday, November 01, 2007

Idle Speculation

One of the bad things about being an insomniac is that occasionally your newsfeed reader beeps in the early hours and you roll over and read the article, intend to comment on it in the morning, but by the time you wake up and read the edited version the following day it has lost its potency.

There are those who know how Google caching works and how much confidence you can place upon it, but I am not amongst them so all I can offer is a straight cut and paste directly from the version of the BBC News Online story as it currently reads.

I'm sure that when I wake up tomorrow it will read somewhat differently, but I'll be commenting on the original. I can't comment on Powell to any great degree, he was before my time, but do I struggle to find anything in the 'immigration is not an issue of race' line that would have offended Hague, Howard or Thatcher. This is something that seems to have been a very sensible Tory mantra as far back as my active political memory extends. 'The Labour Party say he's black, we say he is British' was not a Cameron line, the party has being trying to deracialise these questions for a decade or more in the face of opposition from those parties who willingly play the race card for their own advancement, Labour and BNP alike.

It would be easy to have a go at the likes of Trevor Phillips, as close as he has been to the attitudes of the orthodox left in years gone by, but it is that background that makes what he says, for all his misunderstandings, so valuable.

Cameron hailed over immigration

The head of the new equality quango has heaped praise on David Cameron for his attempts to "deracialise" immigration.

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, heralded the Tory leader's speech as a turning point in the immigration debate.

He said Mr Cameron had set himself apart from Tories such as Enoch Powell, famed for his 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech on immigration.

Mr Cameron said immigration levels to the UK should be "substantially lower".

In his speech on Monday, the Conservative leader said immigration had to be considered alongside other pressures including people living longer, and more people choosing to live alone.

Speaking openly
Mr Phillips said: "For the first time in my adult life I heard a party leader clearly attempting to deracialise the issue of immigration and to treat it like any other question of political and economic management."

"And given that Mr Cameron is speaking against a background in which his party's policy inheritance is defined by Howard, Hague, Thatcher and Powell, this seems to me like a turning point in our national debate about immigration."

He said this was "one that will make it possible for us to speak openly and sensibly about the subject, which most of the country sees as the single-most important in politics".

However, Mr Phillips, previously head of the Commission on Racial Equality, which has been superseded by the EHRC, told a conference in Birmingham: "But Mr Cameron has a little way to go on this matter himself.

"He is asking the 21st Century question about immigration. But unfortunately, he is giving the 20th Century answer in proposing that all of these issues can be solved by capping numbers.

"Rather, we need to meet head on the challenges of rapid and diverse population growth.

"We need to find ways to capitalise on the injection of energy that new migrants bring and bolster our infrastructure and public services to cope with the new demands."

Border police
In his speech, Mr Cameron argued that economic migration from outside the European Union, should be subject to annual limits.

And people from new EU countries should be subject to controls on access to the labour market - as the government has done for Romania and Bulgaria.

Other pledges he made were to set up a border police force with powers to track down and remove illegal migrants and to raise the minimum age for spouses coming to Britain to 21, and ensure they can speak English.

He later told the BBC that it was probably wrong to have linked immigration and asylum together in the past.

He said that part of the attempts to cut economic migrants from outside the EU would involve making it a priority to get people "off benefits and into work".

Source: BBC News Online

The key point is in one observation Phillips makes "For the first time in my adult life I heard a party leader clearly attempting to deracialise the issue of immigration". OK, he may have had convenient deafness for a decade or more, but at least he acknowledges now that at least one party is headed by someone, in the genuinely modern political sense of the phrase really is 'colour blind'.

From a personal perspective it actually feels strange to have commented on this controversial subject six or seven times in the last couple of weeks, since as far as I'm concerned it is a non-issue, other than the fact that a few stories have hit the headlines. It is not the topic in of itself that concerns me, just the hysteria that surrounds it. I've never lived in a world where well adjusted, intelligent people harbour racist instincts. I find it hard to imagine the time when such people did and I am glad that it is not the era I am part of.

Perhaps now all but those in the most appalling terminal stages of leftism can sit down and talk about what is, to any intelligent mind, an issue we need a genuine consensus on.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Killjoy is Here

Jack O'Lantern
Seasons Curses on LibLab Alike
My plan to defy the latest edicts of the medical community by imbibing an allegedly unhealthy amount of red meat and red wine at the Base Camp have run aground thanks to the fact that it appears to be holding a Halloween theme night.

It's all rather annoying especially as my customary haggard appearance has not met the qualifying criteria for fancy dress and the associated free cocktail.

I'm not a great fan of Halloween and am pretty sure I never was. Part of it is the plethora of tat that flies off supermarket shelves and all over otherwise pleasant dispensaries of alcoholic beverages, but it is the importation of trick-or-treating that I like least. I'll be honest and say I'm not that good with kids at the best of times, and Halloween is not the best of times to encounter kids. Let's be honest, very few sensible parents let their offspring wander door to door and so most of the nice ones in decent costumes are usually packed off to themed parties instead leaving the scumbags of the future to wander round and piss off the adult world clad in torn up bin liners.

It's the moral aspect that truly worries me. What kind of message are we sending to our children? No, I don't give a flying fig about the occult overtones of the festivities. The message that worries me is that reward, often in the form of cash can be gained simply by the application of veiled threats.

Are we really trying to breed a generation of new employees for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs?

Ah well, at least it's an opportunity to take kick a man who deserves it when he is down.

Incompetence Central

Exercise Books
Exercising Tiny Minds
For the past week there have been almost daily stories of the government backing down on policies announced just days earlier, using dodgy figures to mask the failures of their existing ones, or the wholesale adoption of Conservative material to fill the gaping void in their own vision.

It's really hard to pick which one has been the most humiliating for Brown and his team. I suspect that many would opt for the admission over the statistics on migrant workers, though my favourite was the climb down over plans to claw back surpluses in school bank accounts.

I delighted to see much of the embarrassment falling on the narrow, in terms of personal courage, shoulders of Brown having being skewered effectively on the issue at PMQs by Cameron. Moreover it demonstrates once again the type of ludicrous thinking that still permeates government. In the private sector the once common practice of punishing departments that have spent their money wisely and run a surplus by cutting their budget in the following year is now universally treated as a joke. Who knows what improvements we could see in the value obtained for we taxpayer's money when one day, and it could be still some time away, similar inanities are swept away in the public sector.

Cameron's most widely reported jibe at the Prime Minister was the "…what makes you think you know better how to spend the money?" line. I'm sure that Brown does think he knows better, as his well known arrogance would allow no other thought to pass his mind. The history of the centralisation of government spending decisions though tells a very different story.

As it happens, the other reason I liked this particular story is that I do have quite an interest in education. In no small part this is because it is the family trade. I'm the black sheep, the only one of my immediate family not to work, or have worked, in the state education sector.

My father was the headmaster of a large comprehensive school before he retired and had one story that illustrates well what happens with excessive centralisation of spending power in education.

Many years ago some bright spark in local government came up with what on the surface of it seemed to be a pretty sensible idea. Centralise the purchasing power of all the schools in the county for most day-to-day needs, and this combined negotiating power and the simple economies of scale could bring enormous cost savings. It makes sense put that simply and indeed in the private sector such effective use of a central purchasing function can, if well managed, deliver good value. This though was local government, which should have set alarm bells ringing, but nonetheless an organisation was born along with an edict that it was obligatory for all schools to use its services.

I won't name the organisation as I think it was mercifully and quietly strangled before the growth of the Internet so facts are hard to check, but I can remember its logo proudly stamped on every exercise book I used while I was going through school and on every pencil and every textbook.

The remainder of the story could be filled in by anyone who has seen what happens with any one of hundreds of similar initiatives. The organisation needed a bureaucracy and not a lightweight efficient one, but a big one with suitable levels of political oversight for pompous councillors and jobs for their offspring and doubtlessly a nice office too.

The result was inevitable. I think it was at a meeting in London that dad went into the WH Smiths at Kings Cross and picked up a single simple exercise book, functionally identical to those that he had to buy from the central purchasing organisation. This being before the widespread use of barcodes the price sticker made the point quite starkly, with the purchasing power of a whole county's schools resulting in a price half as much again as that single over the counter purchase in a London railway terminus.

It turned out to be in no way an isolated example.

The point is for me that, until the public sector can achieve the efficiency levels that can be achieved in the private, very similar schemes that sound good in theory will continue fail to deliver. It seems to be in the nature of government that centralising failure tends to compound, not mitigate that failure. Until Brown has a coherent answer to this as well as understanding that not targets, but the way those targets are set are part of the problem, no, he does not know better.

Just not Cricket!

Jerry Collins
Barnstaple's Super-Sub
There is a long and relatively honorable tradition of 'ringers' in the lower divisions of Rugby Union in this country.

Quite often an first team player coming back from injury will get back match fitness down in the thirds, even quite small teams will often have a peripatetic antipodean who are often found paying work by some stalwart of the club or another, and there is a bit of a tradition of giving people who are just passing through a game if they want one.

I do have some sympathy though for the Newton Abbey second XV in their game against Barnstaple last weekend. According to they got a bit of a surprise at the sight of the visitors' stand in flanker, none other than All Black Jerry Collins freshly returned from Rugby World Cup chokingduties.

The last week has brought mixed Rugby Union news. It was fantastic to hear that Steve Thompson, formerly of Northampton and England is to return to playing the game, while Stuart Abbott who was starting to show a lot of promise in an England shirt has had to call time on his career prematurely through injury. It's far from certain what level Thompson may be able to compete at, returning to the playing side of the game after retiring with serious neck problems, but nonetheless I'm sure most Rugby enthusiasts will be delighted to see someone who was so pivotal in England's development leading up to RWC victory in 2003 being able to play again. To come back from such kind of health issues, having to return a large insurance payout as well, says volumes for the character and the passion the sport engenders, much as Jonah Lomu's valiant effort to get back into an All Black shirt did.

The repercussions of England's against all odds appearance in another World Cup final have also brought mixed blessings. The general feeling remains good, and it's certain that their performance has inspired, but some of the back stabbing over the coaching role has been deeply unedifying. It sounds like there is genuine need for a debate if the jist of the stories is even half true, but it should be a debate conducted behind closed doors, and not in assorted newspaper columns and books by the players and hangers on. Probably the biggest culprit has been Dayglo. Dallaglio is who I've always been pretty much behind, despite his mixed reception in much of the rugby community, but I really think it's time for him to retire from the international game with his head held high.

The best story of the week though for me has been this from the International Herald Tribune, on Rugby in the Arab World.
Rugby, [Syrian player, Mohammed Jarkou] said, perfectly fit his desire for a bruising fight and an exhausting workout.

Their friend Hani Al Hafez, a sometime college student and coach of the nascent Syrian youth rugby league, said he became addicted to the sport almost immediately when he first tried it in 2005.

"Rugby appeals to Syrian youth because while the game is played, it changes into a kind of battle, with hitting and holding. Then a few moments after the game, enemies become friends again," Jarkou said.

Source: International Herald Tribune

It's a great portrait of how a sport adapts itself and weaves itself into local cultures as it spreads in the world.

Who knows, perhaps if they could manage to apply some of the attitudes expressed by Al Hafez to a game against an Israeli team perhaps we might actually start to get somewhere.

We've Got the Message

A little of what you fancy...
I'm sure the red tops will be fighting back against Heather Mills' allegations of being hounded them in the morning, but the daily diet of harassment that has got my goat today is yet another in the seeming daily frontal attacks on our lifestyles by the medical establishment.

In this case the crack troops deployed are those of the World Cancer Research Fund, and their report on the impact of lifestyle choices on cancer risk. As reported by BBC Radio news we were told we should ideally cut out almost all red meat, all alcohol and bacon, eggs and other processed meats; to be fair, as is often the case the TV coverage and the BBC News website coverage is a little more moderate and closer to the spirit of the report. Still the drip drip of regurgitation of pretty similar research on matters such is this at best irritating and at worse has the same feeling of an organised cavalry charge to spur government into interference that presaged the smoking legislation.

Typical too is he fact the report has not gone far enough for the the Taliban elements of the medical profession. Choosing as ever to treat we infidels as five year olds they demand that 'moderation' be replaced by 'abstinence' and make calls to undefined 'government action'.

To these fundamentalists I would say there are many things that can shorten our time on this earth, such as a close encounter with the four foot length of scaffolding pole that got left in my flat after some building work.

To the moderates all I would say is fine, we get it, we're grown ups and we'll make our choices. Nobody is disputing your findings but repetition of the same messages achieves little. We could reduce road fatalites to zero by reducing the speed limit to the same round figure, we could reduce crime to pretty much zero by fully rolling out the type of police state that seems to be the wet dream of many a Labour Home Secretary, and yes, we could extend our lifespans by living the kind of sterile, joyless existance that you seem obsessed with.

We could, but we won't. Life is about more than maximising its duration and minimising its risks. Is the greatest happiness to be found in a long life of modern puritaism, or a shorter one, possibly with an uncomfortable end, enjoying all life has to offer? For me, to misuse a common phrase, in matters of taste there can be no question.

Anyway, the Base Camp is offering a fine concoction of pidgeon breast and chorizo, and I think it's time to go and avail myself of a large portion, to be washed down with some merlot, purely for its anti-oxidant properties of course.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Jacqui Smith
An Unappetising Dessert
It used to be a risky business talking about immigration if you are not a member of the self-appointed band of leftism victims who, they would have us believe, are alone in being able to discus the matter without falling prey to base racist instincts. Slowly but surely this unilaterally imposed 'consensus', especially among the left-liberal media appears to be dissolving. For this the actions of the current government must take much credit, however unintentional this outcome of their handling of the issue may have been.

Today's double humiliation for Jacqui Smith is pretty typical of the series of deceptions, intentional or otherwise, on immigration matters under the Labour administration. These failures have left a huge question mark hanging over Labour's competency in this policy area, even among those whose instincts on the subject are not markedly different from the general thrust of government policy.

To a large extent, I would count myself among those who have a generally positive attitude to immigration, but not an uncritical one.

It is true that immigration need to be better managed to prevent the type of damaging shock loading on local services that is now not a theory, but a widely acknowledged fact. It is also true that the phrases a long the line "they do the jobs that the local unemployed won't do" send me into an apoplectic fit of rage, but then this is directed more against the benefit system that allows this statement to be as true as it is annoying rather than against immigration per se. I'm also concerned by the amount of anecdotal evidence I hear of increasing targeting of law abiding Commonwealth citizens in this country by the Home Office, especially antipodean ones, presumably to make up for our newfound inability to deal with even the real dregs of the EU who wash up on our shores.

Despite these many serious provisos I find it hard to find much serious fault with the philosophy behind current government policy, especially now that they have taken the bulk of the Conservative's
'unworkable', 'uncosted', 'damaging' policies and made them their own. True, they have come to their senses late, but that is a minor charge in comparison to this further example of what is, at best, Home Office incompetence, but which has the distinct stench of deliberate deception hanging around it.

It is hard not to notice one simple fact. Had Gordon Brown not had an almost complete break down of his limited courage we might have been just a couple of days from a general election and with Parliament dissolved it is almost certain that this 'mistake' would only have come to light in the early days of the new government. Ten years ago it would have been scandalous to suggest that civil servants would produce misleading figures at the behest of their political masters; today it is a common charge with the numbers of incidents such as this providing strong evidence, empirical as it may be. Frankly the excuse offered by Smith for the first of the errors seems wholly implausible as simple error by one of her 'Rolls-Royce Brains', if that is what they are.

If my interpretation of the Government's initiative to restore faith in the statistics they quote is correct, it is also worth saying that these miscounts, as a departmental matter, would not be covered by the revised procedures and will in future remain open to further abuse.

The man who will sleep soundly tonight is David Davis. Jacqui may have escaped an immediate Commons mauling while Parliament takes a mini-break prior to the state opening to allow her leader's wounds to have a field dressing applied, but the next Home Office Questions will come soon enough. The scent of blood will be in the nose of a shadow Home Secretary who has brought down bigger and more evasive prey. He will know that a single act of gross incompetency on ones watch is no longer a resigning matter for Labour ministers, but Smith is now playing under a yellow card and with the Home Office seeming still unreformed, another final booking cannot be far away.

It looks like it is possible that the LibDem leadership turnover jokes may be recyclable as Labour Home Secretary jibes before there's even any chance for the dust to settle on them.

There's a green policy for you.

The Greater Good

Bread's food...that's all
Most people of libertarian instincts have a degree of difficulty with large scale public health initiatives, control and rights over one's own body being surely the first and foremost battlegrounds from where the forces of an overbearing state should driven back at every opportunity.

Despite this principle all but a few people on the loopy fringe do accept the immense and undeniable good that can flow from some innovations, especially in the field of vaccination; I seem to remember an especially stirring defence of the concept, now a reality, of vaccinating teenage girls against the horrific downstream consequences of Human Papillomavirus from, if I remember rightly, that bastion of the authoritarian left, Devil's Kitchen. I think most libertarians would be rightly against absolute compulsion, but even government's tend not to seek this and in allowing vaccination to occur by default, usually at school, thereby nullifying the impact of those parents who would otherwise be too disinterested in their child's welfare, a fairly comfortable armistice can be declared.

It is not though an unconditional ceasefire. Where the risks and rewards of such initiatives are more evenly balanced the choice must remain actively in the hands' of the individual. The arguments over fluoridation of the water supply were before my time, though I understand they were quite heated for a time. I suspect that given how limited the evidence still seems to be of a potential down side, decades on, I doubt that it would be high up my list of grievances against the apparatus of the state.

The same latitude though cannot be applied to government plans, thankfully being reviewed, to add folic acid to all flour or bread even if the aim, to reduce birth defects such as spina bifida, is laudable.

The situations are not equivalent as ministers were claiming some months ago. The earlier case was one where a benefit to the vast majority of the community needed to be balanced against a rather nebulous suggestion of risk; the current proposal places a benefit to a small and relatively easily identifiable segment of the populace against risks with significant scientific support to a much larger group of people who in many cases may not even be aware that they are in the 'at risk' club.

It is true that folic acid is at its most effective in the early stages of pregnancy, but the data as quoted by the government seems not to suggest that it is not that there are legions of women unaware of their pregnancy for several months, but that despite the health advice, too many fail to take the recommended supplements.

The government instinct is, of course, that 'something must be done', and perhaps in this case it should. Look at why the information campaigns have failed. A discussion on Radio 4 this week revealed that we buy more books on pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing every year than there are live births. Most statistics on women availing themselves of neonatal services are, I'm assured by a doctor friend, very good; this will come as no surprise to anyone who has been shown more unintelligible prints of ultrasound scans than you can shake a stick by excited friends. It isn't beyond the wit of either man or woman to persuade pregnant women to take a pill each day; for god's sake a significant proportion will have only just stopped taking a pill a day to become pregnant. Don't accuse me of misogyny - it's the alternative attitude that would reflect worse on women.

If you want to ship a nine months' worth of folic acid supplement, free of charge, to every mother-to-be in the land at tax payers' expense, go right ahead - the economics of it are pretty good as it happens. Let's target effective therapies on those who need it, not subject the remainder of us to a therapy that may not be just worthless but potentially very dangerous.

I'm far from a Luddite and generally am very positive about what medical science can do for us, but this proposal looks like a pretty big throw of the dice. I don't criticise the fact this idea has been considered, but by any standards the evidence is pretty equivocal, and lies far from the levels of confidence that a measure like this should be underpinned by.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Hero Worship

It would seem that our somewhat beleaguered Prime Minister has at least one fan who believes that Gordon knows what it takes to exercise high office.

It appears that the front-runner to be the Australian premier after the country's next general election, Kevin Rudd, seems to be determined to ape Gordon in every respect:

Of course he didn't quite get it right. Let's remind ourselves of how a all too real Prime Minister (then in-waiting) does it:

I was going to entitle this 'The Wrong Orrifice' but I thought that some might have got the wrong end of the stick.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Leaving the Stage

End of the line?
This week has brought the sad news that James Watson has resigned his post at the Cold Spring Harbour lab that he headed for over 40 years.

After his recent controversial comments in the Sunday Times about race and intelligence I can't see much of a publishing career to come so it looks like one of the truly great careers in science has come to its close.

It should be said, up front, that what he said was not just his usual provocative type of contribution to public debate, but something entirely unacceptable, especially from a scientific point of view. He drew together an accepted belief that there is likely to be some genetic component to potential intelligence and some highly disputed evidence on performances by different races in intelligence testing and made a wholly unsupported claim that there was positive evidence of a genetically inescapable link between race and intelligence.

It doesn't though make it any less disappointing to see such a distinguished career end in such a way, as much as it may be celebrated by elements in the race industry. The Crick and Watson (and Wilkins and Franklin) story of the discovery of the structure of DNA is one of the greatest stories of science; one filled with periods of despair intertwined with eureka moments and a cast of colourful characters. This, along with their later feats, especially Watson's, and the work of Frederick Sanger, a rare double Nobel prize winner for discovering how to read DNA's simplistic alphabet following on for his first for similar work on proteins, specifically insulin, were the tales awoke an interest in the area sufficient to spend three years studying it in detail at university.

Watson has steered close to the wind on several occasions of late, and often on the same subject. His reasoning that with an acceptance of the probability of a genetic component in determination of intelligence that the possibility that the alleles conferring different capabilities may segregate along racial lines should not be considered too taboo to be investigated brought howls of protest from predictable quarters, but was as fundamentally supportable as his latest words were not. As many supporters pointed out it was likely that such a connection was as least as likely to be disproved as proved, and even if proved may actually have benefits as our genetic blueprint does not always represent an inevitable destiny. If the mechanism by which a genetic variation affects an organism is understood, it is often possible to take account of minor variations in the plans, in some cases by actions as simple as adding basic dietary supplements.

I think his latest assertion is far more likely to be false than true, but at heart, in reading some of his writings, I always felt he was less interested in this particular case in hand, but was simply using it as a shock tactic to advance the more general proposition that science, while it should take heed of good ethics, should not be shackled by the constraints of political correctness. As we see increasingly how the boundaries of 'acceptable thought', especially in the case of climate change, are being ruthlessly policed, often by those with little more authority than being partisan pressure groups, I find it hard to find anything but complete agreement with this more general premise.

At the end of the day the simple, short and surprising low key article in Nature, announcing his part in one of the great discoveries of modern times will be remembered long after this little spat, and James Watson deserves nothing less.